midpoint (2007-01)

In search of the secret

A Stitch in Time

by Stephanie Piper

It’s fragile as a cobweb, made of handkerchief linen and handmade lace and embroidered with roses and ribbons and a small cross. I lift it from its tissue wrappings and survey the toll a decade and more of storage has taken on this tiny garment. I wonder if all the Ivory Snow in the world will whiten it again, and how I will dare to iron it.

The family christening gown was made by my grandmother in 1943. There is not a machine stitch in it, from its puffed sleeves to its pin tucks and French knots. You could not buy this dress today, for love or money.

My older sister was the first to wear it, in wartime Washington, D.C. I was next, and then my brothers, and my children, and my nieces and nephews. Now it comes to our infant granddaughter. Handled with care, it may be worn by her children, and theirs.

There is a small tear in the back seam, and I search my sewing box for the finest needle and cotton thread. I try to match my grandmother’s infinitesimal stitches. It’s uphill work, like trying to reproduce her piecrust, potato salad or chocolate pudding. I follow the steps, but the result is never quite the same. The secret ingredient eludes me.

My grandmother never fumbled. Her touch was sure and steady, whether she was cooking or sewing or setting a table. There is a line from a poem by Gary Snyder that reminds me of her: “the profound clarity at the heart of work.” She did not obsess or analyze. She just took up the task and quietly did it. And when it was done, it was perfect.

I loved to watch her work and I loved to watch her pray. Kneeling beside her, it was possible to believe that the world was a kind and hopeful place. As her rosary slipped bead by bead through her fingers, she seemed to forge the links that held us all together. For me, the odor of sanctity was not incense, but my grandmother’s Antilope perfume.

My earliest Christmas memories are of her house, and the blue and silver trimmed tree that we never saw until Christmas morning. It appeared magically overnight, filling the sun parlor with light and fragrance. The small, spotless rooms smelled of pine forests, fresh coffee and frying bacon. It was the safest place I have ever known.

Tonight our grandchildren arrive to spend Christmas with us. I have cleaned and polished and hung wreaths and baked treats. I have unearthed old storybooks and a toddler-sized rocking chair. I search again for the secret ingredient, the one that will make our house like my grandmother’s, a place of comfort and peace. Again, it eludes me.

I summon up the courage to wash and iron the christening dress, striving for a light touch and a steady hand. I hang it on a quilted satin hanger in the guest room closet. Two days before Christmas, our baby girl will wear this gown for an hour or so, a trip to church and then home again. There will be pictures and toasts, silver cups and gifts wrapped in white paper.

The dress, newly refurbished, seems cloaked in its own pale light. My stitches have closed the tear, joining the stitches taken long ago. Mine are not perfect, but with gentle, thoughtful handling, they will hold. I trace the embroidered flowers, the trailing ribbons, and it comes to me that maybe this is the secret, after all. In the mended seam,  my grandmother’s work is preserved and honored. Past and present converge to clothe the next generation with love.